One Person, No Vote

One Person, No Vote

Recently, a friend who works in college administration told me a disturbing story.  His office had been assigned the often difficult task of assisting college students in voting.  This can be complicated in conservative states with strict ID laws, early registration limitations and residency requirements.  In his state, all voters were required to have a mailing address, which can be a challenge for students living in dorms.  Like with the Native Americans in North Dakota, a P.O. Box was not acceptable.

In response, my friend’s college – in a solution given by the State’s Election Board – had assigned every dorm student an actual mailing address even though their mail came through a central P.O.Box.  However, when my friend arrived at his local clerk’s office a few days before the registration deadline with over 200 registrations, the Republican clerk announced that both the street address and the P.O. Box must be listed.  My friend replied this would be no problem and asked for the registrations back so he could make the corrections.  To which the clerk announced, “It is illegal for me to return these to you.  They’ll just have to be destroyed.”  Fortunately, my friend immediately contacted the State’s Election Board and eventually resolved the situation in a manner that allowed those students to vote.

I tell this story to illustrate one of the most under investigated problems in the United States – voter suppression.  Indeed, I have been amazed at how often, in the past few years, the media and political pundits have analyzed the election of Donald Trump and other disturbing voting patterns with little reference to intentional vote suppression.  This negligence is especially disturbing after reading Carol Anderson’s recent book, “One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Our Democracy.”

In her book, Anderson offers a thorough and well documented survey of voter suppression past and present.  She demonstrates how voter participation, especially by minorities, has recently been attacked in manners reminiscent of Jim Crow voting laws.  She also highlights how the transformation of one of our political parties – the Republican Party – into a white dominated and focused organization has brought racism and white supremacist sentiments into nearly all voter legislation and practice.  In many ways, the Republican party of 2019 has become an ugly replica of the Democratic Jim Crow party of 1950.  This unholy alliance – then and now – between political party and racism casts suspicions on election integrity.  In other words, did the Republican clerk dispute my friend’s college registrations in defense of electoral integrity or because he knew many of those college registrants were minority voters?

While in theory, every US citizen above the age of 18 has the right to vote; in practice, access to voting rights has been increasingly impaired by both legislative obstacles and bureaucratic devices, most of which have been introduced and championed by Republicans.  Under the guise of eliminating voter fraud, laws have been passed and voting rolls have been purged with an inordinate impact on minorities, but a debilitating impact on all lower income Americans.  Indeed, the Electoral Integrity Project, in a recent report found that 2016 elections in North Carolina did not meet the same benchmarks and measurements used to measure free elections in other nations.  They found many of the same electoral corruptions they had identified in recent elections in Iran and Venezuela.

This, of course, is not a new situation in the United States.  For most of the 20th century, US law and practice was intentionally designed to limit voting rights, targeting both women and minorities.  Prior to the Civil Rights movement, a series of Jim Crow laws allowed many states to severely limit black registration and voting.  According to Anderson’s research, before the Voting Rights Act of 1965, black registration in southern states was limited to about 10-20% of the black population.  After the VRA, minority registration soared to a record 62% within five years and continued to grow slowly thereafter.  It can be argued that, when it comes to voting, the United States only became fully democratic in the 1960s.  Until the VRA, the United States had largely been a white male oligarchy.

Unfortunately, the gains made during the years of the federal enforcement of the Voting Rights Act may be in serious peril.  In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down key elements of the Voting Rights Act, essentially stripping the Department of Justice of a role in approving voter related legislation and monitoring elections.  The conservative majority argued the election of Barack Obama suggested racial discrimination no longer hindered voter participation.  This ruling immediately led to an avalanche of largely Republican sponsored legislation designed to suppress minority voter access.  These efforts focused on two primary strategies.

Voter ID Laws

State after state, under the guise of eliminating voter fraud, instituted voter ID laws.  Though these laws often included requirements in direct violation of the VRA, the Department of Justice no longer had the power to challenge these devices.  Again and again, studies find that these laws inordinately impact the poor and people of color.  In my home state of Indiana, though the laws technically offered free ID cards, they required a birth certificate to obtain an ID.  In truly Byzantine hypocrisy, Indiana law also required ID in order to obtain a copy of your birth certificate.  Additionally, most ID laws require the updating of all address changes, a major impediment for working class people who tend to be more transient and less able to make repeated trips to BMV offices.  While all of this might seem justifiable if voter fraud was rampant, Republican led investigations have never exposed more than a handful of voter fraud cases.

Voter Roll Purges

Making it difficult for new minority voters to register is only half of the Republican strategy.  The other half of the voter suppression campaign involved purging voter rolls in such a way as to eliminate thousands of minority voters.  Indeed, in many Republican states, millions of registered voters have been wiped from the rolls on technicalities and without due process.  In many cases, though the VRA still prohibits such activity, those who did not vote in the most recent elections were summarily removed.  In other cases, a data base with serious flaws was used to eliminate people who were allegedly voting in multiple states.  Though a Kansas investigation found only a single incidence of this occurring in a recent election, millions of voters were eliminated from the rolls because they shared similar names or birth dates with people in other states.

These two strategies, designed to allegedly defend the integrity of our elections, have actually resulted in the very opposite – elections where thousands of minority people arrived at the polling sites in 2016 and 2018 to be turned away.  In Wisconsin, black voting rates dropped from 78% in 2012 to less than 50% in 2016.  Fifty thousand less votes were counted in Milwaukee County in an election where Donald Trump only won the state by 27,000 votes.  Across the United States, there was a drop in black voting by 7% in an election where Donald Trump repeatedly said things that should have inspired black voter turnout. In Republican controlled states, the downturn in black voter turnout was as high as 14%.  In Anderson’s book, she outlines in great detail instances in state after state where minority voter turnout decreased for the first time in 50 years.  All of this occurring after the Supreme Court claimed racial discrimination was no longer a serious factor in US elections.

Ironically, the Supreme Court – while acknowledging the election of our first freely elected African-American president – failed to factor in an expected racist backlash from those who found his election repugnant.  Those opposed to his presidency essentially oppose a country where free and fair elections result in African-American presidents.

Make no mistake.  There is a significant portion of the US white population who would return to the days of Jim Crow.  The actions of the Republican Party in the past five years demonstrate this desire.  Indeed, the election of an unapologetic racist President was facilitated by their electoral shenanigans.  Perhaps their party is well named, for they seem more intent on a white republic than a genuine democracy.  Though the Democratic Party is guilty of its own excesses, few would dispute its desire to see all people vote.

If knowledge is power, all those who believe in and hope for a vibrant democracy would do well to spend a few evenings reading Carol Anderson’s “One Person, No Vote.”


Can Trump Supporters and Progressives Be Friends?

Can Trump Supporters and Progressives Be Friends?

One of my friends is an avowed political moderate.  He didn’t vote for Trump, but couldn’t stomach Hilary.  He finds the rhetoric and vitriol on both the right and the left troubling.  From this middle ground, he often criticizes my writings as “drifting too far to the left.”  Over the holidays, he complained, “You tolerate the lifestyles and opinions of everyone but white conservatives.  You paint them in the worst possible terms.  Isn’t it possible someone could support less government intrusion, lower taxes, gun rights and border security and not be a racist xenophobe?  I don’t think you could be friends with a Trump supporter.  You’re even suspicious of me for having some.”

I’ve thought a lot about his questions over the past month.  Have I shifted too far left?  Am I intolerant of and hostile toward white conservatives?  Have I done what I disdain in them and demonized an entire group of people unfairly?  Could I be friends with a Trump supporter?  When he asked me that question directly, I said, “Probably not.”  Since our conversation, I’ve wondered if friendship between Trump supporters and progressives is possible, or even desirable.

Prior to the election of Trump, I certainly knew and interacted with many white conservatives, some within my own family.  While I didn’t lose any close friends after the election, I’ve probably alienated many casual acquaintances and a couple of my cousins.  A few people have unfriended me on Facebook.  At the time, I thought good riddance.  Indeed, I’ve seen people on both sides of this divide post memes with the introduction, “If you disagree with this, unfriend me now.”

My friend worries, “You want to change people’s mind about racism and white privilege, but you’ve run off everyone but those who already agree with you.”  There is some truth to that accusation.  I could blame the Facebook algorithms, but I don’t see as many conservative responses to my blog and posts.  If I am interested in dialogue and changing minds, do I need to moderate my tone and soften my positions?  Years ago, I would have defended the middle ground.  What changed?  What moved me away from my friend?

I know the answer to those last two questions.

Adopting a child of color altered my universe.  It forced me to question and examine everything I thought I understood.  It exposed racist attitudes and assumptions within me.  It spurred reading and research about the history of racial oppression and discrimination in America.  What had once been an abstract philosophical debate became personal.  For me – and I know this isn’t true for everyone with a close relationship with a person of color – that relationship created an empathy that radicalized me.

Middle ground, when it comes to racism and xenophobia, is no longer possible for me.  My friend says, “You see racism in nearly everything.”  He’s right.  I not only see it everywhere; I think it is everywhere.  He thinks much of what I see is a mirage.  I think what he doesn’t see is deeply embedded and camouflaged, nearly invisible to those who benefit from it.  For this reason, he can hear his white conservative friends talk of “Making America Great Again” as a political slogan where I hear it as a racist rant.  He gives them the benefit of the doubt.  I look at them with suspicion.  He calls some of them his friends.  I do not.

One of the factors in my growing intolerance has been my readings from American history.  In the book, “The War Before The War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle For America’s Soul,”  Andrew Delbanco argues persuasively that the imposition of Fugitive Slave Laws, which required northern whites participate in the return of black men, women and children to slavery, was pivotal in the radicalization of the Abolition movement.  What the Southern states demanded from the Northern states, ironically, led to the demise of slavery.

As with the adoption of my daughter, personal interaction with people of color can change attitudes and assumptions.  As long as the cruelty of human bondage was a distant and distasteful abstraction, many white people comfortably inhabited middle ground on the issue of slavery.  When the government forced them to send someone back to certain abuse and torture, middle ground became an immoral swamp.  In the end, the divide between whites who found racism justifiable and those who found it abhorrent became a chasm that friendship and family could not bridge.  It led to a conflict where brother fought brother.

Understanding this history, my friend’s questions become more complicated.  I am certain there were people having our arguments in 1859.  I can hear one saying to another, “You’re drifting too far left.  You paint Southerners in the worst possible terms.  Isn’t it possible someone could support the institution of slavery for its economic and social benefits and still be a fine person?  You want to change the mind of the Southerner, but you’ve alienated them with your moral judgments and slander.  Can’t we all find middle ground?”

My friend won’t like this analogy.  He’ll argue my comparison of our present situation and the pre-Civil War society is a false equivalency, that this very argument is evidence of my radicalization.  I can hear him say, “You’re making it sound like we haven’t made any progress on the issues of racism in America. We freed the slaves.”  Until we elected Trump, I probably would have agreed with him.  Now, I am not so sure.  I worry we’ve simply hidden the chains of racial oppression.  How different is sending an asylum seeker back to their country from sending a fugitive slave back to the South?

Am I willing to interact with Trump supporters, to leave myself open to the possibility of friendship?  I suppose I am with this caveat – if you post memes defending Confederate memorials or wear a red MAGA hat, we are not going to be friends.  The division is too stark.  You are my enemy and my days of “loving my enemy” ended when I left religion.  I am at war with those who look back fondly on America’s racist past. You will not send my daughter back to that time.

If you are an enthusiastic supporter of such ugliness, I have no illusions about changing your mind.  You represent a generational malaise that has plagued our country for 400 years.  Tolerating its existence is why it continues to exist.

If, on the other hand, you truly believe your support of Trump is driven by a commitment to less government intrusion, lower taxes, gun rights and border security, let’s be friends.  I can and have disagreed with conservatives in the past on these issues and still been cordial.  I’d like to believe that many conservative people have had their politics hijacked and marginalized by populist racism.  If you are one of those people, I miss you.  Indeed, we need you.  You are not the problem.

You might even be part of the solution.

Some Things Deserve To Be Cursed

Some Things Deserve To Be Cursed

While I am certain I’ve been guilty of this in the past, one of my new pet peeves is white people who quote Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to support positions he would have found offensive.  White people love to pretend his “I Have A Dream” speech with its color blind references to black and white children holding hands was the pinnacle of this thinking.  It was not.  If anything, it was one of his more gentle and measured speeches, missing some of his more pointed opinions on racism and white supremacy.  He was being polite.

Ironically, one of the more common ploys of racist white people is to critique black voices today with the words of Dr. King.  They will quote some snippet from a King speech and say, “If Black Lives Matter would only adopt the non-violent, non-confrontational approach of King, people (meaning themselves) would be more likely to listen to their complaints.”  Such complaints remind me of something Jesus is reported to have said two thousand years ago.

In the 23rd Chapter of Matthew, Jesus said, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, and you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in the shedding of the blood of the prophets.’ Thus you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets.”

Those words seem especially applicable to my experience in past couple of years.  If what Jesus says is true, we are far more likely to honor the words and deeds of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. today than our ancestors did during his day.  Unfortunately, if what Jesus says is true, how we think and respond to voices of color in our day is probably synonymous to the hostility with which our ancestors responded to Dr. King.  We are them. Whether we realize it or not, we treat the prophetic voices today with the same apathy, disdain, resistance or anger with which our ancestors responded to the Civil Rights movement.

We saw this exposed a couple of weeks ago when many white people expressed moral outrage at a Muslim congresswoman – Rashida Tlaib – who said of the president, “Impeach the Motherfucker.”  I saw this dynamic at work after a Black Lives Matter protest in 2017, when many of my white peers were critical of chants of “Fuck the police.”

I mention those words intentionally, with the same intent as the words of Dr. King, or Rashida Tliaib or Black Lives Matter, to provoke us to think more deeply about what is truly offensive and what is really about silencing the voices of our present prophets.  According to Jesus, every generation says, “If we have lived in that day, we would have not taken part in the silencing of the prophets” even while silencing the prophets of their day.  Whether in Jesus’s day, during the 60s or today, these two things are certain.  Prophets always speak in a way that provoke.  Those in power always critique their tone.

Middle class whites are the people in power.  We may not be the 1%, but nearly everyone us is in the 5%.  We are the oppressor or at least the chief beneficiaries of oppression in this world.  We haven’t owned slaves and we may not have directly mistreated people of color, but much of our wealth was passed to us by ancestors who did.  We may not directly act to diminish the lives of others around the world, but we live in a country largely built on the exploitation of others.  So perhaps we can have some sympathy when the oppressed find our complaints about civility suspicious.

Let me be clear. Politeness is a privilege of the powerful and a requirement – by them – for the powerless. When the oppressors, or the beneficiaries of oppression, complain about the use of profane words, this is less an expression of moral outrage and more a defense of the status quo.  What really offends us?  The profanity or the exposure of an injustice we’d prefer to ignore.

Indeed, the complaints of the oppressor about tone and civility are always hypocritical, self-serving and ethically suspect.  The scribes and Pharisees were so offended by Jesus’ rhetoric.  After all, he called them the equivalent of Motherfucker.  That doesn’t mean his accusations weren’t valid.  Too often, our complaints about tone seem designed to distract attention from the legitimacy of an identified injustice.  We act as if Congresswoman Tlaib’s use of a profanity somehow justifies and excuses the treatment of Muslims by this administration, or that tolerating one profane chant by Black Lives Matter levels the scales after four hundred years of racial abuse.

Or, if we’re progressive, we argue strategy.  We complain that the profanities are counterproductive, that this approach allows people to discount a just cause.  We advocate for politeness, patience and process, never considering the possibility that they choose their words precisely because they’re tired of years of having their more measured complaints discounted.  While complaining strategy, we might want to examine the effectiveness of our own strategies.  Critiquing the emotionally passionate expressions of the oppressed might not be the best approach.

One of the first lessons in de-escalation training is too never tell an emotionally enraged person to “calm down.”  Indeed, to do so is to almost guarantee an even stronger emotional response.  Asking someone to calm down is more about our discomfort than their need to be heard.  The proper response to strongly expressed emotion is to reply, “I hear and share your sadness and anger over past and present injustice.”  An emotionally charged person wants to be heard and understood and not critiqued.

Our attempts to silence the complaints and profanities of the oppressed are akin to the rapist who demands his victim, “Shut up and enjoy it.”  While it might be strategically expedient for the rape victim to comply, a lack of resistance is not a moral requirement, especially when this passivity may be interpreted as permission and presented as such in a court of law.  Christine Blasey Ford was required to be polite and measured in her complaint of sexual assault while Brett Kavanaugh could be aggressive and ugly.

This is the paradox for the oppressed.  When the oppressed complain loudly, vehemently and even profanely about injustice, they are often criticized for their tone, even while those who patiently and politely advocate for justice have their absence of aggressiveness interpreted as a lack of urgency.  Dr. King understood this dilemma well.  Listen to his provocative words.

“Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn.”   

“I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate.  I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice, who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” 

“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

These are the words for which our ancestors rejected and ultimately killed Dr. King.  Note that they did so even though he spoke no profanities.  In actuality, the ability of people of color today to call the President a Motherfucker and tell the police to Fuck off may be a sign of progress rather than incivility.  What King had to say in the private, they can finally say more publicly. The oppressed have enough power to challenge the privilege of politeness, to demand that we listen and really hear.

Let me be clear.  Those of us for whom life has been privileged have no right to police the tone of those who’ve experienced oppressions we do not understand and for which we are partially to blame.  When we do so, we deserve their curses.  The swampy morass from which we condemn them is not the moral high ground we pretend.

After nearly sixty years, I have learned at least one thing.  When I encounter strong expressions of emotion, I do not focus on the words.  I try to listen for the deeper pain and loss those words represent.  I remember an often ignored story about Jesus.  Near the end of his life, when the forces that would kill him were gathering, he walked by a fig tree and reached up to pick some fruit.  Unfortunately, figs were out of season and he found none.  Jesus immediately cursed at tree.

I like that story.  It’s so human.  Though we don’t know what profanities Jesus used on that day, we do know this.  It wasn’t about the tree.

Jesus cursed in response the religious people of his day, who were more concerned about proprieties than poverty and injustice.  Jesus taught us that some things deserved to be cursed.

When Rashida Tlaib cursed a President who has systematically sought to marginalize, denigrate and harm Muslims, she was being Jesus like.  Some things deserve to be cursed.

When Black Lives Matter protesters curse the police for their systemic profiling, harassment and even murder of black folk, they are being Jesus like.  Some things deserve to be cursed.

Dr. King said it this way, “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetuate it.  He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”

When we are critical of those who curse in response to evil and oppression, we are not being good Christians or moral giants, we are scribes, Pharisees and hypocrites.

We’re being Motherfuckers and we need to stop.

Some things deserve to be cursed.

When Rape Was Legal

When Rape Was Legal

I’ve spent the last five years studying the history of slavery and racial discrimination in the United States.  There was much I didn’t know.  I read of the brutality of industrial slavery, something far different than the “Gone With the Wind” portrayals of slavery from my childhood.  I discovered – that when it comes to freeing black people – the Civil War was a splendid failure, that the plight of blacks in America was even uglier after the Emancipation Proclamation.  I learned one black man or woman was lynched every week during the one hundred years after the Civil War.  I uncovered countless stories of white violence and oppression.  After five years, I thought I could no longer be surprised by the moral depravity of white America.

I was wrong.

This past month, I’ve been researching the role of rape in sustaining slavery and racial oppression.  It’s a dimension of slavery seldom discussed – today or in the past.  In 1861, Southern diarist Mary Chestnut wrote, “Every lady tells you who is the father of all the mulatto children in everybody’s household, but those in her own, she seems to think drop from the clouds or pretends so to think.” Chestnut called this reality “the thing we cannot name.”

Unfortunately, one hundred and fifty years later, the rape culture of white America still remains largely unnamed.  If white women report high incidents of racial assault and harassment TODAY, what do we imagine was happening during a period of time when white men had absolutely no checks upon their ability to sexually assault and harass women of color?  If Thomas Jefferson, one of the most enlightened men of his generation, repeatedly raped his slave, Sally Hemming, at the age of 14, we can safely assume the less enlightened were doing the same or worse. This unbridled ability to meet every sexual whim may better explain the resistance of white men to ending slavery than the often-offered economic incentive.  For most of American history, it has been legal for a white man to rape women of color.

While rape has been a common experience for many women, the plight of enslaved women was especially horrifying.  In her book – At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape and Resistance – Danielle McGuire chronicles this often-ignored aspect of the black experience.  She argues persuasively that ALL enslaved black women could expect to be raped and sexually assaulted from an early age, that their parents and husbands could do nothing to protect them and that in those instances where women resisted that the punishment was swift and harsh.  She exposes rape as a common strategy of white men for increasing their wealth – creating children they could eventually sell or monetize.  She documents growing evidence that some enslaved mothers would kill newly born daughters, unwilling to bring them into a rape culture they found so horrible.

Of course, we don’t have to speculate about what was happening to enslaved black women.  We have the accounts of escaped slaves about their mistreatment and sexual abuse.  As Mary Chestnut noted, everyone knew this was happening.  Indeed, Frederick Douglas made it one of the centerpieces of his speeches, reminding his northern listeners that his own birth was a product of rape.  Douglas made it clear that the immorality of slavery was not some philosophical abstraction, but a state that justified a multitude of immoral acts.  The slave that was seen as an economic tool was also seen as an object of sexual gratification.

The 1850 criminal trial of a black girl named Celia graphically illustrates how the rape of women and children of color was understood.  Bought by Robert Newsom at the age of 14, Celia was routinely raped by Newsom over the next five years, resulting in the birth of a child.  At the age of 19, Celia finally defended herself and killed Newsom.  For this act, she was charged with murder.  At her trial, though no one disputed the brutality of Newsom’s behavior, she was found guilty and hung by the State of Missouri.  The message from this nationally renowned case was clear.  Raping an enslaved person was legal.

Unfortunately, what was deeply ingrained in the American white male psyche – the sexual objectification of black women – did not end with the Emancipation Proclamation.  Indeed, like lynching, rape was a commonly used weapon to enforce white supremacy and power throughout the one hundred years of Jim Crow.  In 1944, Rosa Parks – a decade before refusing to give up her seat on the bus – led an effort to arrest and convict six white men – Dillard York, Billy Howerton, Herbert Lovett, Luther Lee, Joe Culpepper and Robert Gamble – for gang raping a black woman by the name of Recy Taylor.  Parks and others gathered irrefutable evidence of the crime, including testimony by the rapists.  However, two Alabama grand juries refused to indict the men. Recy Taylor, who died in 2017, never saw justice.

Yet when I speak of being surprised by my recent research, it is not the rape of enslaved women or the injustice of Jim Crow courts that shocked me.  Though it probably shouldn’t have, what I found most difficult to believe was that the first conviction of a white man for raping a woman of color was not until 1959 – one year before my birth.  In what is considered a landmark court case, four white men – William Collinsworth, Ollie Stoutamire, Patrick Scarborough, and David Beagles – were convicted of raping Betty Jean Owens in the state of Florida.

I name these men intentionally.  “The thing that cannot be named” must be.  These men represent millions of white men who raped black women and children.  Indeed, it is likely that most white American families have rapists in their genealogy.  That they did so in a time when this behavior was ignored or excused is irrelevant.  That the behavior was taboo to discuss is evidence enough of its immorality.

When white people blithely suggest that black people need to get over the past, we do so because it allows us to ignore the shocking and the horrible.  Many black women today have been victims of a culture that defined their rape as a white privilege.  Many white men today, whether they realize it or not, were enculturated to see black women as sexual objects.  Acknowledging both of these realities is a necessary starting point in racial reconciliation.

Slavery As America’s Original Sin

Slavery As America’s Original Sin

I remember the first time I heard slavery identified as America’s original sin.  I was sitting in Rufus Burrow’s Christianity and Social Justice class in seminary.  The person listening to those words in 1988 was a much different person than I am today.  I was a conservative evangelical Christian raised in a rural white community in Southern Illinois.  As such, I remember my shock at both that assertion and its use of a theological concept I still thought sacred.  I wish I could say it jolted me out of my apathy toward racial injustice and into an exploration of racial history, but that would take an encounter with a three year old black girl in 2010.

This week, I stumbled upon an article about the recent death of James Cone, the most famous black liberation theologian in American history.  Honestly, until I read the article, I’d completely forgotten Cone and his once shocking accusations.  Cone wrote, “White supremacy is America’s original sin and liberation is the Bible’s central message.  Any theology in America that fails to engage white supremacy and God’s liberation of black people from that evil is not Christian theology, but a theology of Antichrist.” Rereading those words thirty years after first hearing them, all I could say was, “Amen.”

Though I’m no longer religious and long ago concluded the Biblical idea of original sin was rather ridiculous, I think Cone’s use of the analogy is powerfully provocative.  Indeed, the idea of slavery as an original sin whose fruits and consequences have been passed on from generation to generation – in both white and black communities – seems more reasonable and defensible than the idea of evil originating in a man and woman disobeying God and eating an apple.

Ironically, in my discussions with my white peers about our racial history, I often hear the same language and arguments that eventually led me to abandon the idea of original sin.  Where is the justice in holding people guilty for the sins of their ancestors?  Shouldn’t each person be judged solely on their own behavior?  Isn’t it obvious that children are not born sinful, but are rather socialized into evil?  Shouldn’t our focus be in working for goodness and justice now, rather than on some mythological explanation of past evil?

There are two ironies here.  First, many of those arguing against any white culpability for racial injustice and inequity are also firm believers in the idea of original sin.  They, rather than I, should be arguing that white people can’t escape the taint of past sin, that we pass those sins and their consequences on from parent to child and that redemption and liberation can only come with repentance and reparation.  James Cone is correct.  When it comes to racial issues in America, if you are a theologically consistent white Christian, you should be a champion for white responsibility and reparations.

The second irony is more personal.  Though I long ago abandoned the idea of original sin as a good explanation for human evil, I find the idea of slavery as America’s original sin far more compelling.  I do so not from a theological perspective, but from a sociological one.  While children have to be taught to be racist, this indoctrination is passed on from generation to generation in systemic and unconscious ways.  These rationalizations originated in the need for white Americans to justify the obvious horrors of slavery.  In this sense, white people pass on the taint of defending slavery.  We also pass on the economic and social benefits – money and power – that originated in slavery.

I know how much white people want – when it comes to slavery – for the past be the past, to focus on working for goodness and justice now, rather than on acknowledgments of past racial injustice.  We want all that happened to black people to be forgiven and forgotten. We want to be freed from the burden of past transgressions.  To use another religious concept, we want redemption.

James Cone suggested such redemption cannot come easily.  He wrote, “I believe that until Americans, especially Christians and theologians, can see the cross and the lynching tree together, until we can identify Christ with ‘recrucified’ black bodies hanging from lynching trees, there can be no genuine understanding of Christian identity in America, and no deliverance from the brutal legacy of slavery and white supremacy.”

According to Cone, the lynching tree offers us a singular opportunity for both black and white people to understand their past.   In those trees, white people are forced to confront their past and present accommodations with racist evil and black people are reminded of their courage in the face of that racist oppression.  Like with the Christian cross, something horrible becomes a symbol of responsibility, reconciliation and redemption.  I suspect Cone was pleased with the recently opened National Memorial to those who were lynched.

However, having said all of this, I’m conflicted.  In my opinion, white American Christianity is unlikely to play a significant role in bringing racial reconciliation.  As an institution, it has been far more complicit in perpetuating and defending racism than challenging it.  If I had thought most Christians were serious about the liberation of the oppressed, I might still be one.  Like the prophets of old, I think James Cone was largely preaching to the wind, only remembered and honored after his death.

On the other hand, Cone’s reclaiming of commonly accepted Christian imagery reminds me of what the famous philosopher, Joseph Campbell, concluded.  He wrote, “Mythology is not a lie, mythology is poetry, it is metaphorical. It has been well said that mythology is the penultimate truth–penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words.”  Our myths, religious and otherwise, tell far more about our societal psyche than our history.  They are the ways in which we communicate and interpret our lives together.

Something evil happened on the day the first black person was brought to America in chains.  That moment forever altered American history.  We cannot change that history, but we can choose the mythology we use to understand our shared past.  Will it be Confederate flags or memorials to those who were lynched?  Will it be “Gone With The Wind” or “Twelve Years A Slave?”  Will it be the Puritan work ethic or recognition of the labor of millions of enslaved black men and women?  Will it be the colorblind society or the multicultural nation?  Obviously, I think one set of myths more helpful than the other.

Understanding slavery as America’s original sin could help both whites and blacks put into words something we have so much trouble talking about.  It uses images and ideas we all understand.  It acknowledges a terrible past and explains our present difficulties. It reminds us that racial oppression twists both the oppressor and the oppressed, damaging all of our children.  It offers us a culturally honored solution – acknowledgment of injury, repentance and even forgiveness.

Since 1865, seven generations of white Americans have failed to adequately address the evils of racial subjection and discrimination, adding insult to injury, perpetuating rather than repairing damage, increasing the debt owed to people of color. We’ve passed this legacy on to our children and grandchildren, postponing the day of reckoning, hoping all will be forgotten.  If Cone is right, until we see racial hostility and indifference as an ugly inheritance, we will pass it onto the next generation. If America’s original sin was slavery, it is long past time to liberate both white and black people from our shared curse.

We need to be free, free at last.

You Are Not Faster Than Usain Bolt

You Are Not Faster Than Usain Bolt

Note to my white self…

You are not faster than Usain Bolt.

Usain Bolt is the fastest person in the world.  He has the fastest time in the 100 meters in recorded history, with a time of 9.58 seconds, or about 23 mph.

You are not faster than Usain Bolt.

If – in a race between you and Usain Belt – you started at the 95 meter mark, you would beat Usain Bolt across the finish line.  This does not make you the fastest person in the world.  This simply means you were able to rig the race in your favor.  Celebrating your victory and mocking Usain Bolt would be ridiculous.

You are not faster than Usain Bolt.

If you won that rigged race, this would not give you the right to give Usain Bolt advice on running. Telling him he needed to work harder would be laughable.  Telling him he needs to accept the rules of the race would be absurd.  Rejecting his complaints about your incredible head start as sour grapes would be ugly.  Refusing to change the rules would be unjust.

There is no world, regardless of how you rig the rules and celebrate your victory, where you are faster than Usain Bolt.  Such an assertion is insane.  Yet white people make such assertions about black people every day.

You are not superior, smarter, more hard working, or more deserving than a black person.

Indeed, many black people are superior to you in various ways.  Some are smarter.  Others are more hard working.  Many are more deserving of success and accolade.

You are not superior, smarter, more hard working, or more deserving than a black person.

Historic oppression has allowed you to accumulate $100 of wealth for every $5 of black wealth.  In society, you always have a 95% head start.  Therefore, you will always be more successful and affluent than a black person of equal intelligence, work ethic and character.  This does not make you better than that black person.  This simply means the race was rigged in your favor.  Celebrating your unfair advantage and critiquing black people is ridiculous.

You are not superior, smarter, more hard working, or more deserving than a black person.

When you win the rigged race, this does not give you the right to give black people advice. Telling them they need to work harder is laughable.  Telling them they need to accept the rules of the race is absurd.  Rejecting their complaints about your advantage as sour grapes is ugly. Refusing to change the rules is unjust.

You are not superior, smarter, more hard working, or more deserving than a black person.

There is no world, regardless of how the system has been rigged in your favor, where you are more deserving than a black person.

You are not faster than Usain Bolt.

The primary reason you refuse to address historic and systemic inequities is not because changing the rules is impossible.  You resist because you are afraid.  You are afraid of what would happen if the race were fair.  You are afraid of how much harder you would have to work without your advantage.  You are afraid of rules that truly level the playing field.  You are afraid of acknowledging the ugliness of the game you’ve been playing.

You are not superior, smarter, more hard working, or more deserving than a black person.

Standing at the finish line with your self-awarded gold medal is not impressive.

It is oppressive.

It is racist.

It is insane.

Beating Up On Black People

Beating Up On Black People

Note to my white self…

You know the rule.

You can say nearly anything about your siblings, but – if anyone else says those same things – those are fighting words.

Remember this rule in your Facebook posts, observations and general conversation about black people. Your opinions on black on black crime, rap music, marriage rates, black people using the N word, teenage pregnancy, the work ethic, entitlement or a host of other alleged issues in the black community are unwelcome.  Keep them to yourself.  You are not part of their family.  You have not earned the right to critique them.  Black people are right to be suspicious and hostile when you do so.

Your insistence on your right to critique black people is an example of white privilege and not of objectivity. When it comes to black people and their behavior, you are not objective. You bring your racist assumptions, indoctrination and prejudices to any encounter with black people and culture. When it comes to the lives of black people and the issues within black culture, YOU DO NOT KNOW WHAT YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT.  Your opinions are uninformed and therefore evidence of your racism rather than any expertise.

Don’t pretend your critique of black people and culture is out of some deep concern for the black community when you largely avoid authentic interactions with black people and their culture.  When was the last time you attended an event where you were the minority?  What was the last book you read by a black author?  When have you ever had a deep conversation with a black person about their life and experience?  Be honest. Your opinions about black people are not the result of thoughtful reflection and solidarity.  They are often racially motivated, intended to diminish white culpability and blame black people for past and present social ills.

Yes, I know you read an article about some problem in the black community. I know you have statistics and statistics don’t lie.  They can, however, be manipulated.  When it comes to race, the statistics you emphasize say more about you than what those statistics conclude. Even – if by some lucky coincidence – your secondhand analysis of an issue happens to be correct, you are not in a position to effect change and are far more likely to reinforce negative opinions of black people.  Indeed, in most circumstances, you are more part of the problem than the solution.  Black people are completely capable of identifying issues within their community. They do not need your help.

Nor do they need your affirmation. Quoting a black person to corroborate your opinion does not make you less racist.  The opinions of black people vary on nearly every issue.  Choosing one black person – especially one who shares your negative critique of black culture – as your officially sanctioned black spokesperson is a classic white supremacist tactic.  If you’re really striving for objectivity, you will carefully listen to as many black voices as possible.  You will seek some consensus in their dialogue.  You will respect their most common conclusions in forming your opinion.  Even when you do all of this, your opinion is still irrelevant.

This is true of progressives as well as of conservatives.  The rule still applies.  If you are an ally or accomplice, this makes you a family friend and not part of the family.  Being supportive of black resistance and empowerment does not give you the right to critique Kanye West, Ben Carson, Larry Elder, Coleman Hughes or black people wearing MAGA hats, even when other black people do.  Even applauding their critiques is suspect.  If you need to quote black people, look for those who are critiquing white behavior. Though most white people know little about black culture and experience, every black person thoroughly understands white culture.  They must to survive.  They are experts on white behavior and culture.

I know you think it unfair that they can critique you, but you can’t critique them. Let me explain the difference again.  Power corrupts. Those in power must therefore be critiqued.  White people are still in power. Any white critique of black people is suspect in the context of these inequities in power. Such critique always tends toward victim blaming.  Whether you realize it or not, your critiques will always be tainted by your need – conscious or unconscious – to sustain your power and dominance.

Progressives critiquing the Blacks Lives Matter movement is a good example of this dynamic.  Many say they want black empowerment, but reject all forms of resistance that do not play by the very rules designed to protect white supremacy.  If you love Dr. King, but reject Black Lives Matter, you don’t know much about Dr. King.  If the societal systems and rules worked for black people, they wouldn’t be protesting.  The Black Lives Matter movement should not merely make conservative whites uncomfortable.  It should make all whites uncomfortable.  Embrace you discomfort instead of becoming a critic.

I know you’re concerned about who will hold black people and culture accountable.  Your commitment to accountability is noble.  It is simply misdirected.  You have far too much work to do in holding your white peers, your white dominated institutions and your white culture accountable for their continued oppression of people of color.  Don’t get distracted.  You can’t waste valuable energy critiquing black people.  Let them hold each other accountable.  They’ve been doing this for hundreds of years without your help.  They can handle it.

Let me say this as simply as I can – verbally beating up on a black person is not a good look on you.

Instead of critiquing someone’s else’s family, examine your own.  Who in your family is still telling racist jokes?  Who is your family is sharing racist memes?  Who in your family continues to repeat racist opinions and rhetoric?  Who in your family is most likely to act out of unconscious bias?  Who in your family refuses to acknowledge white privilege and systemic racism?

If you need to be critical, start there.